Tom Ince’s first career hat-trick fired Derby County to a convincing victory at the iPro Stadium to justify their billing as automatic promotion contenders.
City contained their talented hosts for long periods, but Ince’s first goal three minutes before half-time was a setback in their efforts to quell Derby’s attacking threat.
Ince struck again – twice in nine minutes – to effectively kill the game as a contest midway through the second period, while Johnny Russell’s late header to complete the scoring was harsh on the visitors.
Steve Cotterill made three changes to his side, despite winning on the road at Huddersfield Town last time out, including a rare switch in system against a home team just four points off the Sky Bet Championship summit at the start of play.
City adjusted from their traditional 3-5-2 formation to 4-3-3, with Kieran Agard in the lone striker position flanked by Elliott Bennett and Joe Bryan.
A new-look back four of Liam Moore, Aden Flint, Nathan Baker and Derrick Williams could all claim to be centre-backs by trade, making for a significantly more solid tactical approach on paper.
If the game plan was to stifle Derby’s obvious attacking prowess, it was certainly working in the opening exchanges.
Jason Shackell headed wide from the game’s first corner, but the Rams were struggling to create anything of note from free play.
Admittedly City’s goal threat was proving less prominent than in previous matches this season, but their defensive organisation was admirable.
The Rams did find a rare pocket of space in the 26th minute when Jeff Hendrick stole a yard on Marlon Pack – just enough room to dig out a cross from the byeline that was begging to be headed in by Darren Bent, but the former England marksman struck the crossbar from four yards with the sort of chance he has gobbled up for years on end.
Crosses seemed to be Derby’s most likely route to goal. Defender Richard Keogh headed over from another set-piece, before the former City man whipped in a dangerous ball of his own that was punched clear by Frank Fielding.
In between times, Fielding’s opposite number Lee Grant was tested for the first time, as Luke Freeman’s low half-volley forced a fairly routine stooping save.
Meanwhile, traditional free kick expert Freeman was standing aside for Joe Bryan to deliver from wide areas.
From one such situation shortly before the interval, the Bristolian’s fizzed cross stayed low but still reached the far post where Nathan Baker was lurking, as Grant just about smuggled the ball to safety down by his upright with City threatening to take the lead.
Instead the visitors were behind within two minutes. The classy Ince had not been particularly influential until he collected the ball 30 yards from goal, glided beyond two or three red shirts and fired low across Fielding to find the net with his less favoured right foot.
It was a touch of individual brilliance from Derby’s point of view, but Cotterill may feel the winger did not have to work hard enough to negotiate a shooting position.
There would be no changes at the break for a City side who had kept their promotion-chasing hosts at arm’s length for the most part, but a greater attacking intensity was clear to see at the start of the second period.
Korey Smith’s advanced position on the edge of the box was an early statement of intent, inviting a trip from Keogh to earn a free kick in a very presentable area.
This time Freeman did step up and was not far away from an equaliser as his effort cleared the wall but just did not come down quickly enough to hit the target from such close range.
Then Bryan freed Bennett on the right and ran into the box, while the winger picked out Agard with a delicate cross that was nodded down towards Bryan only for Keogh to intercept, leaving the City striker wondering what might have been had he decided to be more selfish.
But with Cotterill’s men gaining in confidence, they were architects of their own downfall when Ince doubled his tally for the night.
A breakdown in communication between Pack and Freeman allowed Ince to seize on a loose ball just inside the City half, advance towards the box and beat Fielding with a low drive that the keeper may feel he could have dealt with as it eluded his grasp.
Derby – and Ince in particular – were not finished. Five minutes later the former England Under-21 international was completing his first ever hat-trick, this time steering in Bent’s cutback from 12 yards.
Russell added Derby’s fourth with a well-placed header from Chris Baird’s cross, by which time Cotterill had opted against using top scorer Jonathan Kodjia as City prepare for a return to Ashton Gate after six days on the road against QPR on Saturday.